Sunday, May 08, 2005

Miguel Contreras, RIP

Until relatively recently, the words "Los Angeles" and "labor's clout" never appeared near each other in the same article. The growth of Los Angeles as a labor stronghold over recent years was largely due to Miguel Conteras, head of the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, who died Friday of a heart attack at age 52.
As head of the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, AFL-CIO, an association of 345 local unions, Contreras built a formidable coalition, in part by pulling diverse unions together through strikes and contract campaigns.

Actors walked picket lines with supermarket strikers, janitors supported locked-out port workers at rallies, and Los Angeles politicians courted union workers largely because of behind-the-scenes work by Contreras.

"The Los Angeles labor movement, like labor movements everywhere in the country, was waning in power and visibility," said labor writer and friend Harold Meyerson. "Miguel managed to turn that around by harnessing the rise of immigrant labor. And by so doing he changed the politics of Los Angeles."
This is just another addition to the rest of the depressing news surrounding the labor movement of late. Contreras was a labor leader who grew up in the fields of California, became active in the United Farmworkers with Cesar Chavez and worked to build strong labor coalitions that managed to win a living wage ordinance in Los Angeles, substantial wage increases for workers and helped defeat a state initative aimed at destrying labor's political clout.

With all of the political gamesmanship going on among the unions in Washington D.C., it was people like Migues Contreras that helped remind me that the labor movement exists not to sustain unions, but to help workers. He will be missed.

Update: More here.

And this from Harold Meyerson in the Washington Post:
Chiefly by mobilizing the city's immigrant workforce, Contreras transformed L.A. into a liberal stronghold in which the labor movement is a dominant force. In a city whose deepest belief is in the makeover, Contreras was the ultimate nip-and-tuck man, remolding the onetime home of the open shop into a city where workers have some real political power.


Over the years, hundreds, and at times thousands, of union activists flooded into congressional, legislative and council districts, electing liberals in Democratic primaries and Democrats of all stripes in the swing districts on the county's peripheries. Such long-established Republican bastions as Pasadena began electing Democrats. By 2000 L.A. County -- home to 30 percent of California voters -- voted for Al Gore and Dianne Feinstein at the identical percentage that the San Francisco Bay Area did. Ultimately, it was demographics that were driving California's transformation from the home of Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan to the bluest of blue states. But by making the new-model labor movement the vehicle of mobilization for the state's new Latino voters, Contreras put that transformation on fast-forward.

The politics wasn't an end in itself. During their epochal strike in 2000, the city's janitors were accompanied at every demonstration, and even at the bargaining table, by elected officials cheering them on. The fact that the strike had been preceded by a primary election in which labor had ousted Marty Martinez, a lackluster Democratic congressman, in favor of pro-labor firebrand Hilda Solis had not been lost on L.A.'s political class. Similarly, the unionization of 74,000 Los Angeles home care workers in 1999 resulted from the election of public officials willing to write ordinances enabling those workers to organize. And the living-wage ordinances enacted by cities throughout Southern California are the direct consequence of labor's newfound clout.